My Trick for Writing Difficult Articles

Every once in a while, I’m faced with a maddeningly blank screen as I try to get my head around how to write an article. Usually in this case, the topic is unfamiliar to me, or I have a lot of research and interviews and don’t know where to start. Here’s how I handle it.

First, I create a new Word document for my article. Then, I write a brief outline based on my murky view of what the article should look like (this can change as I’m writing); for example, for an article I’m working on now on how to create effective store window displays, I had:

  • Lede
  • Differences/similarities between windows and catalog covers
  • Color It Beautiful
  • Lighting
  • Keep It Simple
  • Check the Angle
  • Stay Seasonal
  • Change It Up

(Notice that in some cases, the headers are still awkward and will need to be tweaked, while in others they’re pretty much ready to be used as subheds.)

Then — and this is the important part — I go through my interviews one at a time and copy and paste interesting quotes into the correct section of the article, followed by the source’s initials so I remember who said what. I do the same with any other written research and notes I have, though the non-interview research is for my informational purposes only, not for quoting in the article. For example, at this next stage part of my article looked like this (I transcribe my interviews as I’m doing them, which is why there are abbreviations):


The product and the imagery must be rep w good coloration and great lighting. If they’re showing the product in use. Prod imagery w reproduction and lighting are important. Most windows in modern storefronts have directional lighting. Lighting creates depth perceptions so you can highlight certain items and create primary and secondary elements. Sometimes so [“so” is my abbreviation for “someone”] will hang a Tshirt in front of that same Tshirt being worn by a girl on a bike. You’ll light the T very heavily and secondarily reinforce how fun it is to be wearing it. [DG]

Lighting is very important. All our windows are pre set with lights but they swivel. We don’t put the prods under the light…put in the prod and move the light towards them. Sometimes not direct because there will be a glare at night. During the holidays we put the trees on timers so they go off at 1 am and on at 6 am. Our lights stay on all day all night. Lighting is big. There are bars nearby and people could walk by at 2 am on the weekends so we don’t want the windows all dark. [LD]

Next, I build off of the information I pasted into each section to create the article. I put the best parts of the interviews in quotes, paraphrase some of it, and add my own explanations and other clarifying information.

Now, the article looks like this:

Let There Be Light

Good lighting can make the difference between a dull display and a vibrant, eye-catching window. “The product and the imagery must be represented with good coloration and great lighting,” says [source DG]. Most windows in modern storefronts have directional lighting, which you can use to create depth, highlight certain items, and create primary and secondary elements. For example, says [source DG], if you’re marketing a T-shirt, you could highlight the T-shirt and hang it in front of a less brightly-lighted lifestyle set-up of a girl on a bike wearing the same shirt. This showcases the product while secondarily reinforcing how fun it is to wear it.

Also, advises [source LD], don’t put the products under the light; place the products in the best location and move the light towards them instead. Check the display at night to make sure the lighting doesn’t create a glare; this is especially important if, like [source’s store], you leave the lights on in your window all night. “There are bars nearby and people could walk by at two am on the weekends, so we don’t want the windows all dark,” [source LD] says.

Finally, I go through the article to tweak and smooth the sections. One drawback to this style of building an article is that I tend to follow the formula of “assertion-supporting quote” in every paragraph. I notice this is happening when every paragraph seems to end in quote marks, and I work to rearrange things to liven up the piece and not get into a rut.

So that’s it…how I break out of writer’s block and quickly build a good article. I don’t do this for every article, as in many cases I’m already familiar with the subject and as I go about my daily life my mind sorts out how I want the article to look, so when I sit down I already have a starting place. But it’s great for when I’m not sure where to start and how to organize all my notes.

I hope this trick works for you! [lf]

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20 comments… add one
  • Thanks Linda, this is reassuring!
    The first time I was trusted with a long article having done several shorts and reviews etc., I was terrified. I spent far too much time on it in retrospect, but it was a similar process to you. Even if it’s less of a subheading-led piece, breaking it down into paragraphs always helps me. And so does saying ‘OK, I’ll work flat out for an hour, no distractions, and see how far i get’ – always further than I expect! x

  • You write of using the word “so” for “something” as an example of using abbreviations while typing your interviews. I wonder two things:
    1) if the interviewee is distracted while the interviewer types, and
    2) if you would be better off with using Word’s AutoCorrect feature.

    Though Microsoft pre-populates that application’s database with (IMHO) useless ineffective words, it can be emptied and replaced (thereby exploited) to “multiply” your keystrokes, e.g., “s1” for the word “someone” (a 350% increase improvement in efficiency), or “stg” for the word “something (a 300% increase) and scores of thousands of more…

    There – that’s a freebie.

    I’ve exploited AutoCorrect for over 12 years – it’s great.

  • This is *exactly* how I do it, too. Then it’s more like mad libs and less like writer’s block!

  • Thanks for your comments! Alan, I have a post about another reader’s Auto-Correct tip going up in a couple of weeks…she does the same thing. You could also use TextExpander from (I’m pretty sure there are versions for PC out there too).

  • Alan, I’ve never had a source be distracted by my typing that I know of. I do all my interviews via phone, so maybe since they can’t see me type, they forget all about those clicking sounds they may hear.

  • I recently had the reverse problem–a 1200-word limit on an article with enough material to write 1800 words. I was writing about a human resources problem and how employers could do a better job with it. And my first draft was way too long. What I did was force myself to think of the article in “chunks”–“I’ll do 400 words on a specific example,” “the next 400 words will be on the bigger picture,” “another 400 words on possible solutions,” then “wrap up and conclude in the final 400 words.” It didn’t work out perfectly according to plan, but it forced me to write leaner as I worked on each section. And I ended up with 1225 words.

  • Jules

    Thanks for this Linda. I love your posts on the craft of writing. I’m switching over from television news writing to more print. I came up with a similar technique to get me through my first long magazine stories. Question: Do magazines ever require you to interview a person face to face? Do editors care?

  • Thanks for all yor comments!

    Jules, sometimes magazines do require face-to-face interviews, and I think that in the case of articles such as profiles this can be beneficial. However, I was recently required to interview someone in person for a service piece, and when I finished the article I was like, “And WHY did I have to drive 40 miles to get info I could have gotten over the phone?” But the article paid well, the trip was fun, and my mileage is being reimbursed.

  • HisGirlFriday

    Lately the way I’ve been getting my brain around big stories is to print out my notes. (I type as I phone interview) So each source gets a separate print-out. I then go thru the printed notes and put little check marks or stars or underlines on stuff I want to use.

    I then put the print-outs in order of how I want to use the sources: ON top is the realtor with the big property, then comes to new buyer, then comes the guy with the nationwide stats, etc.

    Then I can piece it together.

    And I always write long and then cut. I can’t seem to do it any other way. It might not be as efficient, but I think in the end it’s easier and quicker for me to write 1600 words and then cut it down to 1400.

  • I tried your technique on a smaller article and found it an easy way to organize my notes. Thanks so much for sharing! It beats staring at that dreaded blinking cursor on a sea of white…;-)


  • Hi,

    Thanks for sharing great insights for article writing. Its really awesome and very useful to me. keep writing.

  • Oliver

    I love it when a topic is difficult because know many tricks and I have learnt new ones now. Thanks

  • I opened up e-mail this morning to three sources sending me some great answers to my e-mail interview questions, and because I have two “difficult” articles due this week and two more next week, I was going to skip your Monday morning e-mail. But I opened it and I’m glad I did! I like the idea of using actual (finished or not) subheads as the outline, and inserting quotes right then and there. Makes me feel like I’ve got a lot of work done! Thanks for a great start to my work week!

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